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Fake Labels vs. Mental Health

As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I have as much training in diagnosis as an LPC, LCSW, LMHC, and so on. However, LMFT's really don't like diagnosing "problems." Our training is to listen to our client's story, and create a treatment plan for an individual, not a diagnosis. What good does putting a label on my clients do? How does that help? One of the worst things we do to ourselves, or others do to us, is to throw around labels.

Damaged. Failure. Ugly. Helpless. Undeserving. Stupid. Bipolar. Depressed. Oppressed. Marginalized. Hopeless.

As soon as we accept a label, we stop being individuals. The world becomes an "us versus them" existence. In this time of national crisis I challenge all of my clients and readers to examine themselves in this regard. Some labels can be attractive. In fact, some labels are promoted by the culture as healthy. But stereotyping yourself with a label is as unfair and prejudicial as doing it to someone else. It can feel good to be part of a group if you are feeling down, or unheard. But it is a deal with the devil, trading your individuality for a label. The world suddenly becomes a fundamentally hostile place, with "us versus them" as the basic principle of existence.

Some might say that this position is ignorant of the existence of racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and any other hateful "ism." But I say, how does it help to become like your haters, by accepting the labels? How does it help you to overcome when you accept a defeatist view of group-versus-group, in which the individual's fate is tied to some abstract concept of societal change?

Instead, I believe that mentally healthy individuals must develop the courage to look in the mirror each morning and see just who stands there: an individual. Change starts with the individual taking personal responsibility for one's present situation, decisions made to alter that, and the outcomes that result from those decisions. An individual sees others as individuals, and that is a position of radical hope in a world that demands pessimism and division. An individual has a story, value, beauty, dignity, meaning. Hope! The world will tear itself apart pitting group against group, and there is no hope in simply joining in. Hope comes from accepting the radical personal accountability of being an individual.

My trauma clients often move through three stages of healing that move stepwise toward maturity and freedom:

1. Resolving feeling frozen, and experiencing victimhood

2. Resolving victimhood and experiencing anger

3. Resolving anger and experiencing freedom in the present

The process of healing is necessarily a movement toward the freedom of embracing personal accountability over one's problems and struggles. Have others kept you down? I don't doubt it! Hate is real. Now, being angry enough to prove them wrong is certainly better than victimhood. But as a trauma client actually discussed with me today, the best revenge is when it simply doesn't matter what others say, do, or think--which is to say, to be able to throw the perpetrators to the past and experience freedom in the present. This is what happens in EMDR trauma therapy (see any post about EMDR), but I am making a more general point about the freedom inherent to the individual who rejects labels.

Some might get angry here and say, "This sort of ignorance enables systemic oppression (insert '-ism' here)." But I say, what if you 1) refuse to be part of the system, 2) refuse to accept the label of "oppressed," and 3) take radical personal accountability for your own life and choices? The true ignorance is rejecting your individuality. Accepting labels creates endless "us versus them." Conflict in a world of abstractions is eternal. The only way to understanding and peace is when individuals meet individuals.

Having dealt with that objection, I now assert again that mental health does not consist in happiness. My most popular post is on this topic ("Fake Happiness vs. Mental Health"), so I know this point resonates with readers. Mental health is a state of enabling oneself, through therapy if necessary, to courageously embrace radical personal accountability over one's struggles, as an individual.

Therefore, question what it is, exactly, that you fear so much, that you would sell yourself out to a label, or define yourself as a group. Only an individual can feel shame. Do you fear shame? Welcome to the beginning of healing. The true struggle is within.

(Note: If the reader is curious about the religious implications of the above, I am happy to engage. Another very popular post of mine is "Faith is Welcome at My Practice.")


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